Voters Took the Lead on Political Change in 2018
While those newly elected to work on Capitol Hill may take the lead next year in the debate about revamping the political system, 2018's salient changes were almost entirely made by the voters themselves.
The fight for control of Congress was the dominant story in the midterm election, but a record number of state and local ballot initiatives produced a wave of important if under-heralded shifts in the how democracy gets practiced after this year.
Redistricting: Most significantly, the people of Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah decided in November to take congressional district mapmaking out of the hands of their state legislatures and turn the bulk of the work over to independent commissions. Ohioans made a similar decision in May.
Now a dozen states, which are currently assigned 32 percent of the House seats, will see partisan power plays significantly neutralized in the next decade's redistricting process, which kicks off after the 2020 census.
Coloradans decided they want an independent panel to draw their state legislative boundaries, as well.
Lobbying and Ethics: Voters in a handful of states approved measures to limit the reach of special interests by limiting campaign money and lobbying.
Floridians set some of the tightest rules in the nation on the "revolving door" between public service and advocacy, prohibiting state and local officials from lobbying their former departments, agencies or governing bodies for six years after leaving office.
Missourians compelled a tightening of rules for lobbyists in Springfield and set new campaign finance limits for state legislative candidates.
New Mexicans voted to create a state ethics commission. So did North Dakotans, who also banned foreign donations to candidates in the state and set tightened rules for lobbying and campaign financing in Bismarck. A similar catch-all initiative was rejected next door in South Dakota, but voters there did decide to limit out-of-state donations in future ballot measure campaigns.
In Arizona, by contrast, voters resoundingly approved ending the partisan independence of the state's political watchdog agency, the Clean Elections Commission.
Campaign Finance: Ballot questions aiming to confront the role of money in politics did well.
Massachusetts approved creation of a state commission to press for a constitutional amendment that would restore limits on corporate, union and non-profit political spending by effectively overturning the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.
And voters in five cities – New York, Baltimore, Denver, St. Louis and Portland, Ore. – set contribution limits in local races or agreed to provide public matching funds to municipal candidates.
Voting Rights: Floridians voted to restore voting rights for all convicted felons, except murderers and sex offenders, once they're out of prison. But Louisianans voted to bar felons from seeking elected office for five years after they do their time.
Maryland and Michigan voters decided to permit Election Day registration at polling places. Michiganders also approved no-excuse absentee voting, straight-party balloting and automatic voter registration for people when they do business with the secretary of state (unless they opt out). Nevadans embraced automatic voter registration for everyone dealing with the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.
But not all the successful ballot initiatives were in the cause of making it easier to vote. Solid majorities in both Arkansas and North Carolina, for example, decided to require voters to show a valid photo ID before casting ballots. And Montana voters decided by two-to-one, a to restrict absentee voting.
An increasing number of the country's largest publicly traded companies are disclosing more than ever about political spending habits that the law permits them to keep secret.
That's the central finding of the fifth annual report from a group of academics and corporate ethicists, who say the average score among the biggest companies traded on American exchanges, the S&P 500, has gone up each year since 2014.
Though corporate political action committees must disclose their giving to candidates, those numbers are very often dwarfed by the donations businesses make to the trade associations and other outside groups that have driven so much of the steady rise in spending on elections. Conservatives say robust disclosure of these behaviors is the best form of regulating money in politics and is working fine, and this new report reflects that. Those who say campaign finance needs more assertive federal regulation will argue such corporate transparency is inconsistent and inadequate to the task, and the new report underscores that.
A year from the presidential election, U.S. intelligence agencies have adopted a new framework for how they will inform candidates, groups and the public about attempts to disrupt our country's elections by foreign operatives.
But the one-page summary of the plan, released late last week, is so general that it remains unclear what the intelligence community plans to do if and when it discovers something suspicious.
The summary by the director of national intelligence states that the federal government will "follow a process and principles designed to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, that notification decisions are consistent, well-informed and unbiased."
The new framework is designed to prevent a repeat of some of what happened after the 2016 election.